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3 stars

Our Three-Body Problem | Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning

I suspect there are some mistakes in this piece, but I’d argue it doesn’t matter. It’s a “big ideas” essay, and it’s fascinating and thought-provoking, even if (probably) not entirely accurate:

“The West and the Rest” has an irresistible ring, but when you get down to it, the incommensurability of Indian culture to that of China yawns just as unfathomably, or more so than that between the West and either Asian giant. For my money, the irreconcilable cultural poles the remaining century will bring into focus are these three ancient traditions: the broader Abrahamic West, the Chinese sphere and the Indian one. […]

The core differences go back at least 2,500 years, and they date to German philosopher Karl Jaspers’ “Axial Age,” when the seeds of the great religions and transcendent philosophies were sown. Confucian thought in China preoccupied itself with the well-being and virtue of people in this life. China’s metaphysical tradition was stimulated by Buddhism, which arrived already philosophically mature from India. Instead of reflecting on the nature of the universe, the Chinese recorded the events of this world in exact detail. The Zhou defeated the Shang on the 20th of January 1046 BCE, thus beginning classical Chinese history.

Meanwhile, Indian intellectual energy was so focused on abstract metaphysics that the subcontinent developed no native historical tradition at all. Instead, Indian ascetics retreated to the forests and produced the contemplative Upanishads, which plumb the depths of inner mysticism. This single-minded devotion to the inner world left little time for the outer world. India’s historical chronology is in fact calibrated by the pilgrimages of Chinese monks to Buddhist holy sites in the subcontinent. There is no Indian Herodotus, but there are Faxian and Xuanzang.

Finally, the Western tradition began with Egypt and Mesopotamia, matured with Greece, Rome and Persia and grew to encompass the dual Abrahamic civilizations of Christendom and Islam. The West exists at an equipoise between the practical and the abstract. Aristotle’s own oeuvre alone encompassed both Politics and Metaphysics, underscoring that the concrete and ideal were both fully allowed to vie for centrality in Western civilization. During the Enlightenment, Western thinkers looked to the secular governing elites of Confucian Imperial China, while in the 19th century, philosophers like Schopenhauer drank deeply at the well of Indian thought in formulating their ideas.

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Peter Singer Is Committed to Controversial Ideas | New Yorker

To the extent one can have favourite living moral philosophers, Peter Singer is my favourite, and it’s not even close. Here’s an enjoyable interview with him:

You’ve touched on migration here and there in your writings, and it’s part of your family’s story. But I heard you say on a podcast that we might actually have a moral imperative not to open borders, because it could lead to the kind of backlash that would put the likes of Donald Trump in power. It was a very surprising way of looking at it. What is your view on migration? What should we be doing?

I don’t think you should find it surprising, given that I’m a consequentialist. In an ideal world, we would have open borders, no question about that. I think that would have many good consequences and certainly would enable refugees to move away from situations of oppression and genocide. Obviously, my parents did just that, and that’s why I exist.

But I’ve seen the effect of regimes that do open borders, or nearly open borders. I was a founding member of the Australian Greens, which said that we should accept all the so-called boat people from Afghanistan and Iran and other places, who were seeking asylum in Australia in the eighties and nineties. For a time, Labor did as well. But it was clear that those issues were exploited by the conservatives to suggest that Australia was going to be swamped by different people, and I’m pretty sure it cost Labor a federal election on at least one occasion. And then you see the other bad consequences of this: not only did the borders get closed and the refugees were put in horrible detention camps, which the conservative government did, but they also opposed doing something on climate change. They cut foreign aid, they run down the hospitals and schools and universities. There is a real cost to this. […]

I can’t imagine myself being in favor of trying to shut down a more radical or visionary approach.

I don’t want to shut it down. I started the Journal of Controversial Ideas because I’m a great believer in freedom of speech and freedom of expression. But I also don’t want a progressive party to throw away its chances of governing by embracing ideas that clearly are rejected by the electorate.

So the order of operations is, you change hearts and minds, and then you change policy. You don’t expect policy to do the work of convincing people.

Yeah, that’s right. Jeremy Bentham, before the 1832 Reform Act was passed in Britain, argued for extending the vote to all men. And he wrote to his colleagues that he would have included women in that statement, except that it would be ridiculed, and, therefore, he would lose the chance of getting universal male suffrage. So he was aware of exactly this kind of argument. Bentham also wrote several essays arguing against the criminalization of sodomy, but he never published them in his lifetime, for the same reason.

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GameStop’s CEO Goes Out on Top | Money Stuff (Bloomberg)

Tesla Sold Some Bitcoins | Money Stuff (Bloomberg)

More Matt Levine…and I’m not particularly sorry about it:

Is George Sherman one of the greatest public-company chief executive officers in American history? He became CEO of GameStop Corp. on April 15, 2019. The stock closed at $8.94 per share that day. On April 19, 2021 — almost exactly two years later — GameStop announced that he will be stepping down by July. The stock closed at $164.37 that day. That’s a 1,739% return over his two-year term, or about 325% annualized. (The S&P 500 index was up 43%, or about 20% a year, over those two years.) GameStop’s market capitalization went from about $900 million to about $11.5 billion; Sherman added about $10.5 billion of shareholder value in two years. […]

Obviously I am kidding a little. I don’t know what to tell you. […]

You could argue that I was wrong about Cohen, and that the stock-price surge really was due to rational optimism about his plans. Sherman, not so much. He seems to have been largely a bystander as his company became a meme. And now he gets paid. “It does potentially allow the executives to sell their shares near GameStop’s historically high levels.” Ordinarily that’s the whole point of executive compensation! The whole point is to pay executives more when the stock price goes up, so that they will have incentives to do things that make the stock price go up. But in 2021, with GameStop, the stock price became disconnected from the business. But not from the executive compensation.

Meanwhile who’s gonna be the new CEO? And how will that person get paid? Do you give the new CEO stock options struck at like $300? If the stock falls back to, say, $90 — up 400% from the start of 2021! — that will be a disaster for the new CEO. The market seems to think that GameStop is an $11 billion company. Does its board think that? […] Does the new CEO? Never mind what Sherman did or did not do, as CEO; just look at how much the stock price increased during his tenure. How do you follow that act?

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I wrote back in February:

A funny thing for Elon Musk to do would be:

1. Tesla Inc. buys some Bitcoin.
2. Tesla announces that Bitcoin is good now and that it bought some.
3. The price of Bitcoin goes up, because institutional adoption of Bitcoin is good for its price, but also because, by the Elon Markets Hypothesis, anything that Musk buys goes up.
4. Tesla sells some Bitcoin, making a profit.
5. Musk tweets that the price of Bitcoin is too high.
6. Bitcoin prices go down due to the Elon Markets Hypothesis.
7. Go to Step 1.

Well, on Monday Tesla announced earnings, and guess what guess what guess what:

Tesla pulled a new lever to juice earnings in the quarter, generating $101 million in income from selling about 10% of its Bitcoin holdings.

Profit from the cryptocurrency and the sale of regulatory credits and tax benefits contributed about 25 cents to Tesla’s adjusted earnings of 93 cents a share, allowing the carmaker to beat Wall Street’s 80-cent average estimate, Dan Levy, an analyst with Credit Suisse, wrote in a note Monday.

That’s wonderful, my sincere congratulations to them. People want to be mad about this? There is a vague sense out there that it is somehow fraud to buy a thing, say you like it, and then sell some of it. For instance Dave Portnoy, who I guess is an investment celebrity now, used the words “pumps” and “dumps” to describe Tesla’s actions on Twitter, prompting Musk to reply that “Tesla sold 10% of its holdings essentially to prove liquidity of Bitcoin as an alternative to holding cash on balance sheet.” (Tesla’s “Master of Coin,” Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn, also talked a lot about liquidity on the earnings call; Tesla decided to put a chunk of its corporate cash into Bitcoin and I guess needed to make sure that its money wasn’t trapped. A reasonable concern! “We've been quite pleased with how much liquidity there is in the Bitcoin market,” said Kirkhorn.) […]

This also means that Tesla is sitting on $900 million of unrealized Bitcoin profit that it could realize any time it’s convenient. As long as the price stays high. Which, fortunately for Tesla, is kind of in Elon Musk’s control!

Obviously if you are a transformative electric car company it is better to make your profits by selling transformative electric cars than by moving the price of cryptocurrency with your tweets. Selling the cars is better for the environment, better for the world; it has higher growth potential; it deserves a higher multiple. My point is only that, for Elon Musk right now, moving the price of cryptocurrency with his tweets is really easy and lucrative and, in the short term, sustainable. Among the things he tweets about, it is probably the one that distracts him least from his work, and the one with the highest returns for shareholders. He should do it every quarter.

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2 stars

What Data Can’t Do | New Yorker

The particular mistake that Tony Blair and his policy mavens made is common enough to warrant its own adage: once a useful number becomes a measure of success, it ceases to be a useful number. This is known as Goodhart’s law, and it reminds us that the human world can move once you start to measure it. Deborah Stone writes about Soviet factories and farms that were given production quotas, on which jobs and livelihoods depended. Textile factories were required to produce quantities of fabric that were specified by length, and so looms were adjusted to make long, narrow strips. Uzbek cotton pickers, judged on the weight of their harvest, would soak their cotton in water to make it heavier. Similarly, when America’s first transcontinental railroad was built, in the eighteen-sixties, companies were paid per mile of track. So a section outside Omaha, Nebraska, was laid down in a wide arc, rather than a straight line, adding several unnecessary (yet profitable) miles to the rails. The trouble arises whenever we use numerical proxies for the thing we care about. Stone quotes the environmental economist James Gustave Speth: “We tend to get what we measure, so we should measure what we want.” […]

Numbers are a poor substitute for the richness and color of the real world. It might seem odd that a professional mathematician (like me) or economist (like Harford) would work to convince you of this fact. But to recognize the limitations of a data-driven view of reality is not to downplay its might. It’s possible for two things to be true: for numbers to come up short before the nuances of reality, while also being the most powerful instrument we have when it comes to understanding that reality.

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The Slander Industry | New York Times

I wanted to slander someone.

My colleague Kashmir Hill and I were trying to learn who is responsible for — and profiting from — the growing ecosystem of websites whose primary purpose is destroying reputations.

So I wrote a nasty post. About myself.

Then we watched as a constellation of sites duplicated my creation.

To get slander removed, many people hire a “reputation management” company. In my case, it was going to cost roughly $20,000.

We soon discovered a secret, hidden behind a smokescreen of fake companies and false identities. The people facilitating slander and the self-proclaimed good guys who help remove it are often one and the same.

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The Ultimate Guide to Black Holes | Kurzgesagt (YouTube)

Black holes are the most powerful and extreme things in the universe and they are wildly weird and complicated. What would happen if you fell inside one and what are they really?

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China's government is starting to screw up | Noahpinion

Time and again, skeptical observers predicted imminent doom — from a housing bubble, from excessive debt, from an unbalanced growth model. Time and again, doom kept refusing to materialize. When property prices threatened to spiral out of control, the government cooled them; when a stock price collapse or global recession threatened to slow the Chinese economy, the government let prices rise again. It seemed as if direct management of the financial system had let China tame the business cycle in a way that no other government had yet figured out how to do.

Then there was COVID. Although the epidemic began in China, it never got nearly as bad there as it did in Western countries that had much more time to prepare. With a system of harsh, well-enforced lockdowns, border closures, and universal rapid testing, the country managed to control the disease so well that its economy has outpaced most others in recovery.

Given this seemingly unbroken record of success, perhaps it’s no surprise that the ever-present chorus of skepticism has quieted lately. Many thinkers outside China now seem to tacitly accept that the country’s leaders can simply attain whatever growth rate they want, develop whatever technology they want, and meet and conquer any threat. Writers who normally support free markets, property rights, and so on now wonder if China has invented a wholly new and more successful way of running an economy.

But although the fact hasn’t received much media attention, China’s government has stumbled badly on a couple of things in the past few years. These state failures aren’t big enough to threaten the country’s development, but they’re small narrative violations that may indicate that the omnipotence of China’s rulers has been oversold.

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Humans Make Up Just 1/10,000 of Earth’s Biomass | Smithsonian Magazine

Anyone who has walked through a jungle or wandered a grassland may already have guessed that humans are a pretty small part of Earth’s organic matter. The carbonaceous winners are plants, which make up about 80 percent of all biomass on Earth. Bacteria comes in second at 13 percent and fungus is third at just 2 percent.

Of the 550 gigatons of biomass carbon on Earth, animals make up about 2 gigatons, with insects comprising half of that and fish taking up another 0.7 gigatons. Everything else, including mammals, birds, nematodes and mollusks are roughly 0.3 gigatons, with humans weighing in at 0.06 gigatons.

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Which States Won — And Lost — Seats In The 2020 Census? | FiveThirtyEight

This southward and westward migration of congressional seats will, of course, affect the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans. With legislatures and commissions all over the country about to draw new congressional maps, states where Republicans have full control of the redistricting process added two seats on net (four seats gained, two lost). Meanwhile, the few states where Democrats wield the redistricting pen subtracted one seat on net (one gained, two lost). States with independent redistricting commissions or where the two parties share redistricting power also lost a net of one seat (two gained, three lost).

As a result, we can now say with finality that Republicans will control the redrawing of 187 congressional districts (43 percent) — or 2.5 times as many as Democrats (who will redraw 75 districts, or 17 percent). There are also 167 districts (38 percent) where neither party will enjoy exclusive control over redistricting (either because of independent commissions or split partisan control). And, of course, there are six districts (1 percent) that won’t need to be drawn at all (because they are at-large districts that cover their entire state).

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1 star

Making a LEGO Domino Machine | JK Brickworks (YouTube)

Building and testing a LEGO machine for making domino runs. Each 'domino' is a stack of 5 1x3 LEGO bricks.

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Proposed Post-Pandemic New Yorker Covers | Kottke

Tomer Hanuka asked his third-year illustration students at SVA to “come up with a post-pandemic New Yorker magazine cover”

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Rotating Lights in the Desert | Kottke

Always a pleasure to see new work from Reuben Wu, whose stuff I’ve featured here before. For this piece, Wu journeys into the audiovisual realm, combining his light-forward photography with his music production work

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The Disastrous J&J Pause | Marginal Revolution

We were told that the J&J pause was necessary to prevent vaccine hesitancy. I never understood the certainty people expressed on this point, even people who were relatively good on other issues. In anycase, as the excellent Daniel Bier argues, the best explanation for the data right now is that the J&J pause increased vaccine hesitancy.

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The Incredible, Underrated Allen Wrench | Art of Manliness

The Allen wrench is one of those things that is so ubiquitous you’re apt to take it for granted. 

I’ve got a bunch of these L-shaped pieces of metal distributed all over my house. There’s an Allen wrench on top of my dresser. There’s one in my bathroom cabinet. There are a few stashed in my office desk. And my junk drawer runneth over with them.

For some reason, the Allen wrench sitting on my bedroom dresser grabbed my attention this morning and got me wondering, “What’s this thing’s story? Why do I have so many of these wrenches lying around? Why is it so satisfying to fasten screws with one?” 

So I started investigating. 

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Michael Moschen performs THE TRIANGLE | YouTube

Master juggler Michael Moschen performs his incredibly famous, jaw-dropping piece where three balls and a triangle become a musical and visual work of art.

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Where Do Company Names Come From? | Kottke

Coca-Cola - derived from the coca leaves and kola nuts used as flavoring. Coca-Cola creator John S. Pemberton changed the ‘K’ of kola to ‘C’ to make the name look better.

Pepsi - named from the digestive enzyme pepsin

Jordache - from the first names of the Nakash brothers who founded the company: Joe, Ralph, David (Ralph’s first son), Avi, plus che, after the second syllable of “Nakash”

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Emma Newman | Threadreader (Twitter)

My Dad lives in an apartment near a canal and a certain duck has taken a liking to his balcony. So much so that she nested there last year and is nesting there again this year. But there are some things you need to know about this situation.

First: my Dad's apartment is on the 9th floor. It's about 150 feet up, if memory serves. Ducks usually nest close to water. And in fairness, the water is close.... just a really, really long way down.

Second: My Dad absolutely LOVES wildlife and birds especially. He's been a member of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for my non-UK lovelies) all his life, since he was a child (he's in his sixties now).

So when this duck picked his balcony, out of dozens of potential nesting spots, she did well. Apart from the whole DEADLY DROP OF DOOM to the water bit. She found the best human to help her. And my Dad takes this responsibility VERY seriously.

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A map of country borders | Reddit

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